Monkeys typing?

by Viv on November 16, 2007

Fair play to Richard Naish in November’s e.learning age – he has the poke to write about the impact of the “cult of the amateur” in an article provocatively called “Monkeys typing” (as in get enough monkeys typing for long enough and eventually Hamlet will be reproduced). Essentially he laments the trend of the diminishing status of the expert as user-generated content becomes more prevalent under the general trend that is Web 2.0. But in the world of learning, is this all about loss of powerbases or is it a genuine worry about quality?

The production technology for e-learning is getting cheaper and more widely distributed. Hence technology that was once the exclusive domain of specialist e-learning companies has become available to corporate L&D functions and in turn to people in the line. As this transfer of technology occurs the people who are losing exclusive rights to it become worried on two counts:

1. Will the quality of learning produced be comparable to previous good practice?
2. Will I still have a job left?

It’s often difficult to establish which of these represents the genuine worry.

I remember working in a L&D department at the time when PowerPoint was distributed throughout the firm. The first fear was that there would be lots of dreadful presentations as a result. This fear was completely founded…what it led to was a change in what L&D did: a shift towards L&D being more of an enabler of good learning in the line, rather than a centralised clearing house – it also highlighted what a good job we did compared to the “amateurs”, so we definitely had jobs left.

James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of crowds” has been widely (mis)quoted as the harbinger of doom for experts everywher. He sets out 4 conditions that need to exist for a crowd to make better decisions than individual experts:

  • Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  • Independence: People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
  • Decentralization: People are able to specialise and draw on local knowledge.
  • Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

Using wikis to share knowhow is an example of the initiatives to bring about improved learning and performance in companies which pretty much accord with these conditions. No doubt there are success stories, but it seems difficult to imagine this replacing formal learning in professional firms. Firstly it’s very time consuming for client-facing staff to contibute to user-generated content – pairing a high performer with a learning expert will get quicker and hence less costly answers. The other angle is risk – difficult to imagine firms’ compliance departments abdicating their role or partners wanting them to as it’s reassuring to have an expert to blame if the firm gets sued. There is a still an important place for experts.

So when it comes to producing good quality e-learning my worry is definitely number 1 (quality). Whilst the tools for producing e-learning are making it easier, it still needs skilled practitioners to use these tools effectively. And just like the old days of helping people improve their PowerPoint presentations, I spend a good chunk of time coaching in-house L&D staff how to improve the instructional design of their e-learning.

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